(Bangkok) – The Cambodian government should ask the Court of Appeal to quash the conviction and order the release of Kong Mas, Human Rights Watch said today.
On March 23, 2020, the Court of Appeal will rule on the appeal of Kong Mas, a former member of the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) who was sentenced to 18 months in prison for “insult” and “incitement to commit a felony.” Kong Mas has been in custody since January 2019.
“The Cambodian authorities should realize that the bogus case against Kong Mas does nothing but show how repressive the Cambodian government continues to be,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Although the EU gave the government a partial reprieve by only withdrawing some of Cambodia’s trade privileges, Prime Minister Hun Sen continues to target peaceful political expression.”
Police arrested Kong Mas on January 16, 2019, after he posted criticism of the government on his Facebook page, including a claim that the European Union was planning to take action under the Everything But Arms (EBA) trade treaty and impose an import tariff on Cambodian rice. His lawyer said that the police took Kong Mas into custody without a court summons in violation of his due process rights.
On January 19, 2019, the investigating judge sent Kong Mas to pretrial detention after charging him with insult and incitement to commit a felony (under articles 502 and 495 of Cambodia’s Penal Code). The Cambodian authorities frequently use these two vague legal provisions to prosecute and silence critics of the government. Kong Mas repeatedly sought bail during his pretrial detention but was denied bail by the Phnom Penh court, the Court of Appeal, and the Supreme Court, all of which are politically controlled by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). On October 18, the trial court convicted Kong Mas on both charges and sentenced him to 18 months in prison.
On February 12, 2020, the European Commission decided to partially suspend Cambodia’s preferential trade preferences under the EBA treaty because of the government’s egregious violations of civil and political rights and failure to resolve human rights concerns identified by the Commission. The EU’s confidential preliminary conclusion, sent to the Cambodian government on November 12, 2019, stated that Cambodia seriously and systematically violated the right to freedom of expression and other civil and political rights. The partial suspension of Cambodia’s preferential access to the EU market comes into force in August 2020.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen’s persecution of opposition activists is risking an even wider suspension of trade benefits under the Everything But Arms program,” Robertson said. “The EU, EU member states, and the European Parliament should use the time before the treaty’s partial suspension to press the government to free all political prisoners and stop harassing government critics.”